PREVIEW: Preston North End v Luton Town
Hatters head to Deepdale this weekend
Preston North End's aims at featuring in the Championship play-offs this season have been hit by a campaign riddled with inconsistency.
After finishing ninth last term, just four points adrift of the top six, there had been hopes that the Lilywhites could push on ever further this term.
However, it has turned into an increasingly hit and miss kind of time for Alex Neil and his side, as prior to the turn of year, they had managed just two draws in their opening 22 league games, recording 10 wins and 10 draws.
A run of three straight victories in December had looked like things would be brighter in 2021, as they sat 11th, but more importantly just five points of the play-offs.
Any thoughts of a sustained charge quickly faded with back-to-back defeats as North End began a seemingly irreversible slide down the table, as their ability to pick up three points dried up.
Preston managed just one league win in January at Birmingham, as although Blackburn and Huddersfield were defeated in February, nine losses from 15 have seen Neil's side now below Luton, sitting in 16th position, closer to the drop zone than the top six.
Home form has been a huge concern all term, with Preston losing nine times, the joint fourth worst in the division and only winning once in their last seven at Deepdale, failing to score in nine of their 18 matches overall.
They suffered yet another loss, on the road this time, in midweek, going down 2-0 at Middlesbrough, a game that saw captain Alan Browne sent off for violent conduct, despite appearing only react after Sam Morsy lashed out first.
He was also followed by Neil himself, who had to sit in the stands for the second half, a call that massively irked the manager, with an appeal failing since.
Speaking to the official website, he said: “I just think it’s an outrageous decision. It’s cost us points and that’s the problem.
“One of the biggest disappointments as well was at half-time as I’ve never been sent off in my managerial career.
"I certainly didn’t approach the referee with any aggression, I didn’t swear or raise my voice.
“It’s clear their player forearm-smashes Alan in the back of the head, he then swings his arm again and hits him a second time, and Alan naturally reacts because it’s meant.
“I just think for us at the moment, it sums things up.
"The fact that our player gets sent off in that incident, it beggars belief for me, and that’s the most disappointing thing for me.”
Neil had a hugely busy final month to the transfer window, as although they managed to bring in sought after midfielder Ben Whiteman, North End lost centre half Ben Davies in a surprise move to Premier League champions Liverpool, while Ben Pearson headed to Bournemouth and Darnell Fisher joined Middlesbrough.
Preston looked to bolster his ranks via the loan market, Sepp van den Berg and Anthony Gordon joining from Liverpool and Everton respectively.
Greg Cunningham also arrived from Cardiff, as did Stoke's Liam Lindsay, while during the month, more additions were made, Ched Evans from Fleetwood, and Leicester's Daniel Iversen, plus Brighton midfielder Jayson Molumby.
There were plenty of outs on loan too, Josh Earl, Adam O'Reilly, Josh Harrop, Jayden Stockey, Dave Nugent and Ethan Walker all moving on.
Team news: Luton could have defender Tom Lockyer available as he is back in training following an ankle injury.
Sonny Bradley (thigh) and Dan Potts (head) are both expected to miss out though.
As mentioned, Alan Browne is suspended for Preston, while there are doubts over Ryan Ledson and Greg Cunningham.
Long-term casualties Declan Rudd and Patrick Bauer are out for the season, while although Louis Moult is back in training, he is some weeks away from a return to action, after 18 months out.
Top scorers: Hatters: James Collins (10). Lilywhites: Scott Sinclair (9).
Milestones: Martin Cranie – defender will make his 50th appearance if featuring against Preston.
Experienced player was signed on a free transfer by former boss Graeme Jones in the summer of 2019 and has scored twice so far, on his debut against Middlesbrough and in the 2-1 win over Brentford last term.
Man in the middle: Thomas Bramall - referee has had 26 games so far this season, showing 61 yellow cards and four reds, although this will be the first ever Championship fixture he has officiated.
Has been a quick rise from the National League, as he is in just his third season as a Football League referee, although has taken Luton twice already, both in the 2018-19 campaign and both 1-0 away wins, at Bury in the FA Cup and Southend United in League One.
James Wilson and Steven Meredith are the referee's assistants with Jeremy Simpson the fourth official.
In charge: Alex Neil – 39-year-old who played for Dunfermline Athletic, Airdrieonians, Barnsley, Mansfield and Hamilton Academical in his career.
Became Hamilton's player-manager in 2013, leading them to promotion to the Scottish Premiership in 2014, before heading to England in January 2015, appointed manager of Norwich City.
Guided the Canaries to the Premier League, although couldn't keep them up and was sacked in March 2017.
Was named Preston boss four months later and is now the sixth longest serving manager in the Championship.
View from the opposition: Manager Alex Neil talking to the club's official website: “Nathan has done a really good job there.
"They are tough opponents. The game down there (3-0 defeat) was a low point for us this season in terms of how we performed and they were very good.
“If we can go and try and get a good result out of this game, it means we can go into those two weeks with optimism and try and look forward to the remaining eight games.”
Manager record: Nathan Jones has come up against Alex Neil four times in his career previously, with the Preston man holding the edge with two wins and a draw, Jones picking up just one victory so far, that earlier this season with a 3-0 victory at Kenilworth Road.
One to watch: Ched Evans - striker who began at Manchester City before moving to Norwich City in 2007 where he scored 10 in 28 earning a £3m move to Sheffield United in July 2009, scoring almost 50 goals in three years at Bramall Lane.
Spent two and a half years in prison after being found guilty of rape, a conviction that was quashed in April 2016 as he was found not guilty six months later, as on his release, had a spell at Chesterfield, before returning to the Blades for £500,000 in May 2017.
Didn't quite work out in his second stint, as he went to Fleetwood for the 2018-19 season, bagging 18 goals.
Made the move permanent in August 2019, scoring 19 times and had seven goals this term before moving to Preston in January, after then Cod Army boss Joey Barton stated was down to his 'discipline and his behaviour.'
Off the mark for his new side in the 2-1 home defeat by Rotherham, but managed to score in back-to-back games to make it three in 12 games so far.
Friendly faces: Preston have striker Jayden Stockley on the books, after signing him from Exeter in January 2019 for £750,000.
Move hasn't quite worked out as he scored nine goals in 71 appearances, with just one this season, loaned to Charlton in January where he has netted four times in 12 games so far.
Now 27, the forward joined Luton on loan from Bournemouth in January 2015, notching three goals in his 13 games.
It was his time at Exeter that really saw his career take off though, with 41 goals in 76 games to earn his move to Deepdale.
Played for both: Steve Elliott - forward began his career at Nottingham Forest, moving Preston in CHECK where he scored 70 goals in 200 games, as David Pleat snapped him up for £95,000 in the summer of 1984.
Scored on three minutes of his debut against Stoke City, but played just 15 games, scoring six goals, including one during a 3-2 win over Watford, as he was used in part exchange deal that brought David Preece to Kenilworth Road in December.
Had two good seasons with the Saddlers, netting 21 goals in 60 games as he then played for Bury, Rochdale, before dropping out of the pro games to join AFC Guiseley in 1990.
Was sadly diagnosed with dementia recently, speaking about the condition in a BBC documentary two years ago.
We've got form: Luton have a quite dreadful record on their visits to Deepdale over their history, despite things starting so well, Willy Shanks scoring the only goal to settle a Division Two contest back in January 1950.
That was the start of an eight game winless run though, losing seven and netting just twice, until Alan Slough was on target in a 1-0 success in January 1972.
Since then, the Hatters haven't won though, with the 12 following games since seeing Luton register just three draws, losing their last eight outings.
Overall, Town's record makes for miserable reading, with just two victories from 22, drawing four and losing 18, as they have fired blanks on 11 occasions, scoring 14 times and conceding 38 to a Preston side who haven't been shut out since that 1-0 win in the 1970s.
Last time out: Luton were beaten 2-1 late on by Preston during their visit last season.
The hosts went ahead when Town conceded a penalty, as although James Shea saved from Paul Gallagher, the Preston man thumped home the rebound.
Callum McManaman was then fouled in the area for a spot-kick that James Collins converted, as Luton had a great chance to win after the break, Harry Cornick going through only to be denied by keeper Declan Rudd.
Luton were then beaten with six minutes left, Jayden Stockley scoring the winner.
Hatters: James Shea, Luke Bolton, James Bree, Sonny Bradley, Matty Pearson, Callum McManaman (Harry Cornick 67), Luke Berry (George Moncur 86), Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, Jacob Butterfield (Ryan Tunnicliffe 61) James Collins, Kazenga LuaLua.
Subs not used: Simon Sluga, Lloyd Jones, Alan Sheehan, Andrew Shinnie.
Referee: Gavin Ward.